In the western Ireland village of Knock, on the rainy evening of August 21, 1879, fourteen people saw three figures bathed in light against the rear exterior wall of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. It was an oddly casual apparition: the first passersby who noticed the radiant figures were surprised, but walked on without telling anyone. Witnesses came and went for some two hours, all leaving before the silent vision was over. The priest’s housekeeper, Mary McLoughlin, aged 45, was on her way to visit the Byrne family shortly after 7:00 pm when she saw “one like the blessed Virgin Mary, and one like St. Joseph; another a bishop” with “a white light about them.”
After a short visit, the housekeeper walked back toward the rectory along with Mary Byrne, 21, who was much more excited by the sight at the church: “I beheld, all at once, standing out from the gable, and rather to the west of it, three figures which, on more attentive inspection, appeared to be that of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph and St. John. That of the Blessed Virgin was life-size, the others apparently either not so big or not so high as her figure. They stood a little distance out from the gable wall, and, as well as I could judge a foot and a half or two feet from the ground.” The Virgin held her hands uplifted in prayer. Beside the suspended figures a lamb stood on an altar.
Mary Byrne identified the bishop figure, who was holding an open book, as St. John the Evangelist because of his similarity to a statue of that saint she had seen in another church. Subsequent witnesses, many of whom she gathered, accepted her interpretation. Miss McLoughlin returned to the rectory around 8:30. She encouraged the pastor, Bartholomew Cavanagh, to go see the “beautiful things” at the chapel, but he did not, and they both retired. Around 9:30, Mary Byrne was one of the last to leave the apparition site. When her brother Dominick returned there at 10:15 after visiting a dying parishioner, the figures were gone.
The Knock visions occurred at the beginning of the Land War of tenant resistance to evictions following the Great Famine in Ireland. The Land League founded in 1879 was active in rehousing evicted farmers in the area near Knock. Poor Catholics there took the apparition as a sign of divine support against wealthy landholders who had British government backing.
In October that year, a diocesan Commission of Inquiry recorded witness testimonies and found them “trustworthy,” without issuing any official decision as to the supernatural nature of the events at Knock or the merit of devotions based on them. Indeed, in over a century since, the Catholic Church has remained nearly as silent on the subject as the figures themselves did that damp night in 1879. In the absence of an official decision, the Church has given tacit approval by its actions: in 1971, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship granted the Knock Shrine the right to conduct anointing of the sick, as at Lourdes; and in 1979 Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the Shrine, rebuilt in 1975 to accommodate its thousands of pilgrims.
The Shrine’s site, Marian Shrine | Knock Shrine | Ireland’s National Marian Shrine | Shrine Mayo, www.knock-shrine.ie (witness accounts)
Catholic Tradition, www.catholictradition.org/Mary/knock5.htm (photo of the Virgin’s statue)
Mark Daniel Kirby, “Blessed Virgin Mary: August 2011 Archives,” Vultus Christi, vultus.stblogs.org (photo of statuary group)
Catherine M. Odell, Those who Saw Her: Apparitions of Mary, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, Huntington, Indiana, 1995